CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 1 . . . . September 8, 2017
The Night Gardener is an exquisitely illustrated picture book from Canadian brothers Terry and Eric Fan. Upon first glance of the stunning dust jacket and cover art, anticipation instantly starts to build as one ponders the mystery and magic that awaits inside. This initial publication for the Fan brothers is sure to be the first of many as the beautiful artwork and tender storyline will undoubtedly capture the hearts and imaginations of a new, widespread fan base.
In the opening pages of The Night Gardener, readers are introduced to a young boy named William who resides at the local orphanage on Grimloch Lane. One morning, William awakens to observe a commotion in the streets below where the residents of Grimloch Lane have gathered to view a curbside tree which has been transformed overnight into a stunning topiary of a giant owl. Captivated by the owl, William stares at it in wondrous awe throughout the day and goes to bed with much eagerness about what surprises the next day will bring. When the morning comes, William discovers another topiary masterpiece in the neighbourhood, this time a gigantic cat. Over the following days, more and more topiary creations appear, including an enormous elephant, rabbit, parakeet, and even a colossal dragon whose majesty lures in members of the community to come experience its magnificence up close. On his way home from the festivities centering around the latest dragon topiary, William notices an unfamiliar, elderly man walking along, toting a ladder over his shoulder. Curious, William follows the man into Grimloch Park where his prediction is confirmed – the mysterious stranger is indeed the magical Night Gardener. Forming an instant friendship with the man, William assists him in his evening work, and, together, they sculpt masterpiece after masterpiece under the moonlight. Exhausted, William falls asleep under a tree only to awaken in the morning to families rushing into the park to view the newest topiaries. At that time, William discovers a pair of gardening sheers left to him by the Night Gardener. As autumn comes and the leaves on the sculpted trees begin to fall, little remains of the topiaries, but, even though the residents of Grimloch Lane can no longer physically see the sculptures, their splendour endures forever in their hearts and brings positive change as they come to fully appreciate the beauty that surrounds them. The concluding pages see William carrying on in the footsteps of the Night Gardener as he creates his own topiary using the sheers left to him as a gift.
According to the description offered in the opening credits, Terry and Eric Fan's illustrations are "rendered in graphite and coloured digitally". This format is an ideal match for the book as it offers a beautiful, vintage vibe which directly complements the storyline. Similarly, the choice of paper for both the cover and individual pages in the book add to the vintage tone and are pleasing to the touch. The detail in each illustration is splendid, and, at times, it is easy to forget that one is looking at a drawing rather than a real life photograph of daily life in a community. The Fan Brothers' evening illustrations are particularly attractive, with elegant attention to shadowing and luminescence from the overhead moonlight. Readers will appreciate how certain illustrations that feature specific topiary designs also integrate real life animals to complement the Night Gardener's creations, such as dozens of colourful birds landing on the shoulders of spectators and in the branches of the tree sculpted into the shape of a parakeet. This subtle addition is aesthetically pleasing as it adds an extra boost of colour to the illustrations and suggests that such artistic masterpieces are intended to be appreciated by all, including nature's residents. The illustrations offer a mix of full page, double page, and smaller inset images which work to maintain reader attention and allow for a smooth flow of story content. The Fan Brothers' gradual introduction of colour cleverly mirrors the joy that the Night Gardener is instilling in the community. The minimal use of text is ingenious as it draws one's gaze to the topiary and enables each reader to experience the grandeur of the sculptures. In many ways, readers become observant members of the Grimloch Lane community, marvelling in the wonder that comes with each turn of the page.
The Night Gardener leaves readers with a renewed admiration for the combined beauty of nature and artistic creativity. This book would appeal to a wide range of readers as the minimal use of text makes it developmentally appropriate for younger audiences while the intricacy and aesthetic qualities of the illustrations that accompany the emotionally powerful storyline would capture the interest of slightly older audiences. An ideal blend of word and image, The Night Gardener is a picture book indulgence in all respects.
Christina Quintiliani is an Ontario Certified Teacher and Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Education, Brock University, St. Catharines, ON., where she is researching children's literature.